I Am Thinking

[Content Note: Discussion of violence.]

In the wake of any public event of violence, there are the offers and promises and solicitations of prayer. I understand this: In times of crisis and trauma, religious people turn to prayer for solace and in hope of response, and I live in a deeply religious country.

But I am not a praying person. I cannot offer prayers.

I can say that I will keep people in my thoughts, which is generally received as a sufficient equivalent, but, for many religious people, praying constitutes an action, an asking for intervention, a hope that something will change; something will be done by someone.

Because I don't believe in a god, I cannot depend on intervention. I cannot ask anyone but myself to do something.

And so instead of offering prayers, I offer instead: I am thinking about what I can do better.

Violence doesn't exist in a void. Violent people and their violent acts happen in a culture that rewards domination, facilitates oppression, makes war profitable, maintains hierarchies of human value, devalues pacifism, glorifies brutality, abets cruelty, inequality, injustice, and tolerates colossal amounts of bigotry under the guise of "both sides" having a point in a false debate that equates the ache and effects of marginalization with the discomfort of having one's undeserved privilege challenged.

I am thinking about what I can do to dismantle the culture of violence.

Terrorism as a specific act of violence is effective because it is such an incomprehensible thing. It is an act that most of us cannot imagine, that many of us will never personally experience. While the act itself may be impossible to wrap our heads around, the context for terrorism—the circumstances in which terroristic ideas are born—can be better known. It is a difficult and discomfiting exploration, and we tend to avoid it.

I am thinking about what I can do to better contextualize and understand terrorism.

Talking about violence, especially acts of mass violence, as the work of a "madman," or any variation on attributing mass violence exclusively to mental illness, or as "senseless," or in any way categorizing these acts as existing in an unfathomable void torn from the culture in which they happen, comprehensively Othering people who commit acts of mass violence, is a way of giving ourselves permission to not feel obliged to change, ourselves or our environment. We thus exclusively task the people who want to do harm with harm prevention. In the same way we acknowledge we need to define and critique and dismantle a rape culture that abets rapists, we must define and critique and dismantle a culture of violence that abets violent people and their violent acts.

I am thinking about what I can do to speak about violence in a way that effects change.

Condemning violence is not sufficient, irrespective of its absolute rightness. Public violence is an action, undertaken by people who feel empowered by violent acts. Certainly, not every act of public violence would be halted by empowerment, by listening, by options. There are many ideas underwriting acts of violence that should not even be entertained as serious discourse. I don't know what to do about that, about the seemingly irreconcilable tension between people with reprehensible beliefs who turn to violence because they are not heard. I don't know how many violent people hold garbage beliefs as a mask over insecurities that aren't meaningfully or easily addressed, except by violent ideologies. I suspect early intervention with alternative ideological trajectories would be a deterrent, sometimes.

I am thinking about what role I can play in providing alternative ideas to violent ideologies.

I am thinking about these things, so that I may act. Because I don't want to feel helpless. Because I don't exist in a void, either. And because I do not pray.

[Note: This is not a criticism of people who do pray, nor am I suggesting that people who pray and people who think about what they can do are mutually exclusive groups. This is a first-person essay on my own experience in response to a common cultural meme.]

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